iPads are the Answer—What was the Question?   

In 2010, the late Steve Jobs stood on stage and unveiled a device that would change how we interact with technology—the iPad.

iPad stack Timing couldn’t have been better for schools to jump on board because a mountain of federal stimulus funding for special education was headed their way—close to $2,500 for each student with an IEP. Many districts filled entire rooms with iPads in clean white boxes. People had questions, and this device was the answer. It was the tabula rasa—the blank slate that had an incredible knack for keeping children engaged.
The benefits were immediate. Parents saw their children interact and communicate with technology for the first time. They marched into schools across the country and demanded iPads. Educators attending educational conferences replaced paper and pens with iPads (laptops never seemed to become a note-taking device). Students who were issued an iPad loved them. For the first time, the technology was the same as what everyone else was using.

But, for many districts, the initial glow of iPads faded into a technology hangover. The problem used to be “not enough technology.” The problem became “not enough planning.”


The video below is a hilarious example of technology-led initiatives and early iPad infatuation. It helps put things in perspective.

Yes, there is an app for just about everything. Which brings us back to the title of the article, “iPads are the Answer, What was the Question?” The man in the video enthusiastically promotes the “there’s an app for that” mindset showing how the iPad can replace current tools and behaviors without first considering the need and task. This of course comes full circle at the conclusion when his clever wife gets the last laugh.                   

So, how do we know when to recommend a tool, iPads included? Years ago, Joy Zabala, Ed.D., laid out a process for assistive technology decision-making called the SETT framework. It became a popular mainstay of assistive technology teams.

 SETT framework In the SETT framework, one looks at the Student needs first. What are the areas of concern and what does the student need to accomplish? Environment comes next—who needs to be involved in implementation and what are the characteristics of the places the technology will be used? Tasks are what the student needs to do in the environment (i.e. write a three-paragraph essay). And Tools are considered last. This is where the iPad, apps, word prediction, speech-to-text, pencil grips, and switches come in if appropriate based on the previous analysis.

This surge of technology caused many districts to impulsively turn the SETT framework into the “TEST” framework, starting with “Tools” before student needs, environments, and tasks are even considered.

And in this time of increasing change, tasks can change quickly. Testing is an example. With new state assessments in the works, it’s important to consider the accommodations allowed and choose a tool that will work on the test. The PARCC testing consortium—one of the two major testing consortiums that covers 22 million students—allows word prediction as a testing accommodation. While word prediction on a tablet may be appropriate for daily instruction, the accommodations may not work in conjunction with the test. For more on testing accommodations, check out this on-demand webinar presented by Ruth Ziolkowski.

I hope this argument isn’t misconstrued as being “anti-iPad.” As a developer of technologies that support the iPad and many other devices, I think it’s wonderful that many districts no longer identify “not having enough technology,” as their biggest challenge with implementation. But, I urge that the promises that come with the iPads, Chromebooks, Android tablets, and the next big thing don’t blind people from starting with the basics of a needs analysis when recommending tools, apps, and software. The iPad is just a tool—a brilliant tool in fact—but student needs should be considered first.

Ben Johnston

~Ben Johnston

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